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Similar scenario to 1991 Oakland firestorm played out in 1913

claremont hotel 1920s

An October fire fanned by high winds and fueled by abundant eucalyptus trees and tall grass sweeps through the Oakland-Berkeley hills and threatens the landmark Claremont Hotel. That describes the events of the disaster known as the Oakland Firestorm of Oct. 19, 1991.

It also sums up a fire that broke out on Oct. 6, 1913 in the Berkeley hills that overwhelmed the young city’s firefighting capability. The Claremont residential district in Berkeley had been established for less than a decade and was still developing. The hotel itself had been under construction for a number of years, stalled at points by financial issues.

“Following an architectural competition, ground was broken in 1906 for the Claremont
Hotel, designed by Charles W. Dickey,” the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association writes on its website. “It was not only to be a glorious destination site, seen from all vistas around the Bay, but it was also to be a large garden park enhancing the environment for the building of beautiful homes.”

According to Historic Hotels of America, “construction was held up — first by the earthquake of 1906 and then subsequently, the Panic of 1907.”

The fire was reported by a resident around noon, the San Francisco Call wrote and Berkeley soon had to seek assistance from Oakland in battling the blaze. (Berkeley’s department had been a full-tme professional company for less than a decade, formed in 1904 after City Hall burned down.) Also assisting were “hundreds of residents.”
claremont hotel fire 10 6 1913
Coverage from the San Francisco Call of the Oct. 6, 1913 fire that swept through the hills, a scenario similar to what happened on Oct. 19, 1991.
The blaze threatened not only the hotel, described by the Call as “one of the largest framed hostelries of the west,” but homes in the fashionable Claremont neighborhood. The fire did not claim the hotel, but did spread unchecked along Tunnel Road through the largely unpopulated hills, “fanned by a high wind” and burning down “trees set out by the People’s Water Company (a forerunner of EBMUD) five years ago.”

The fire burned several hundred acres in the hills, according to the Call account, but no property damage or injuries were reported other than the loss of the trees.

The hills would be much more developed by the time of the 1991 firestorm that claimed 25 lives and destroyed 3,642 homes, with damages estimated at $1.68 billion. Some claimed at the time that resources were diverted to from fighting that fire to prevent its spreading to the Claremont Hotel. Others say that if the fire had reached the Claremont, it would have more easily spread into lower Berkeley and possibly reached the UC Berkeley campus.

The Claremont finally did open in May of 1915, in time to serve tourists to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

claremont opening 05 03 1915

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Ortman family history in Berkeley goes beyond ice cream

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Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor at Solano and Colusa avenues.

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Since it’s a holiday weekend in July, it seems like a good time to remember a favorite ice cream name of the past — Ortman’s.
Bill Ortman was a Berkeley native and a veteran of World War II who opened an ice cream parlor on Solano Avenue after the war, moving it to Solano and Colusa avenues in 1950, where it continued until 1993. The location is now a Starbucks.
There was a second Ortman’s location at the top of Fairmount Avenue in El Cerrito that was popular, but did not last as long as the Berkeley parlor.
The Ortman family has a long association in Berkeley, in particular with the dairy business in the city’s early days, as columnist Hal Johnson explains below in a 1943 column in the Berkeley Gazette.
In addition, as noted in Ortman’s 2012 obituary, “Bill’s father (Charles) was a Lieutenant with the Berkeley Fire Department, and was killed in 1939 while saving three children from a burning house.”

Steve Finacom of the Berkeley Historical Society wrote about the fire and rescue in 2014 in his “Berkeley: A Look Back” column in the Berkeley Voice:

“First Lieutenant Charles J. Ortman, 45, is dead today following his heroic rescue of three young children from the smoke-filled home of Mr. and Mrs. George G. Rogers, 1837 Rose Street, shortly after 8:30 last night, ” the Berkeley Gazette reported Feb. 2, 1939.
Ortman lived across the street from the Rogers home. He was off duty and at home, when “the fire tapper in the house sounded” — we’ll assume that was a device to alert off-duty staff that there was an alarm — and he heard on his shortwave radio that the call came from his block.

Rushing outside, Ortman found his neighbors on the street and smoke pouring out of their front door. Entering the house he rescued their 4-year-old granddaughter and her siblings, twin babies, just as on duty firemen arrived. Ortman then grabbed a hose and led the effort to put out the fire in a bedroom. Inspecting the attic, he died of an apparent heart attack.

City flags flew at half-staff for the Berkeley native, a member of the department since 1912.

The funeral took place on Feb. 3, starting at Berg’s Funeral Home, 1936 University Ave.

Traffic was stopped as the cortege moved up Shattuck to University, then north to St. Mary Magdalene Church, where a requiem mass was held.

Ortman was survived by his wife and two children. He was, the paper said, one of 112 fire department staff in 1939.

ortman dairy 1902
A 1903 ad for the Peralta Jersey Dairy owned by Henry Ortman.

Below is the 1943 column by Hal Johnson about Henry John Ortman’s North Berkeley Jersey Farm. It recounts a 1903 fire at the dairy that was extinguished with buckets of milk and may have inspired Bill Ortman’s father to join the Berkeley Fire Department.
The Henry J. Ortman House is not only still standing at 1824 Rose St., it was selected for one of this year’s Preservation Awards from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association commending its renovation.

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A cow grazes in North Berkeley with the Peralta Park Hotel in the background.

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An ad for the El Cerrito location of Ortman’s 1954.

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A 1959 ad for Ortman’s in El Cerrito.

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Solano at Colusa shortly after Ortman’s became a Starbucks location.

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Must-see video: Young women ride ostriches at El Cerrito greyhound track in 1934

eckc ostrich 1934

The operators of the El Cerrito Kennel Club, the greyhound racetrack that operated in the city from 1932 to early 1939, were masterful with promotions to keep the 10,000-capacity stands full. A typical evening could feature 11 races and added attractions such as boxing or wrestling matches, a post-race dance in the clubhouse or drawings for a new Plymouth.

One of the most memorable promotions came in 1934, the track’s third year of operation, when the attractions included a drawing for a Plymouth sedan, a race featuring the “famous Hollywood monkey jockeys” riding greyhounds in a race (and presumably wearing jockey silks), and the main attraction, “pretty girls riding the famous racing ostriches.”

The ad for the day is pictured here, but now — thanks to youtube and a company called Critical Past — there is video online of old film footage showing young ladies jumping onto the ostriches and holding on for dear life as the birds run around the track. If you look closely in the background, you can catch a glimpse the historic 1907 Pierre Allinio house, which is now for sale.

Another attraction at the El Cerrito dog track pitted ostriches against race horses, but no video of that event has surfaced … yet.

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Richmond fundraiser being held April 29 to support family of slain officer

FUNERAL FOR OFFICER GUS VEGAS

The Richmond Police Officers Association is hosting a fundraiser on April 29 at Salute Restaurant to assist the family of Officer Gus Vegas, who was fatally shot Feb. 11 at his home in Vallejo. The announcement for the fundraiser is below.

OFFICER GUS VEGAS MEMORIAL FUNDRAISER

On February 11th, 2016, Augustine “Gus” Vegas, a City of Richmond Police Officer was murdered at his home. Officer Vegas was the sole provider for his family, which included 10 children and 20 grandchildren. He served the City of Richmond and its citizens for over 15 years. He was a diligent and kind police officer.

Salute’s Restaurant owner, Menbere Akilulu, Mechanics Bank and the Richmond Police Officers Association have collaborated to provide a fundraiser for Augustine’s family. Please stop by and enjoy wine and appetizers provided by our own Richmond businesswoman, Menbere Akilulu. The event is on Friday, April 27th, between 4-7 PM. 100 Percent of all other sales during this time will be donated to the Vegas family. Hope to see you there!

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TBT: Once-familiar El Cerrito building had a link to black Americana

spring chicken

Winner, winner, chicken dinner —
Here is the ID of the once-familiar building in El Cerrito and its background, which we asked about last week. The building is best known (see photo above) from its decades attached to El Cerrito Mill & Lumber, with the lettering growing more faded as the years passed.

The building originated around 1929-30 as Mammy’s Place, a plantation-themed attraction for travelers on the newly rerouted Lincoln Highway (San Pablo Avenue), just south of Cutting Boulevard, “near the large Carquinez Bridge sign,” according to the menus given out to customers as a souvenir. The proprietor was Harry Bottger, who may have also operated the food concession on the Richmond-San Rafael ferry.
Mammy’s Place boasted a “fine hardwood dance floor and music,” though the establishment once ran afoul of the authorities over the use of its jukebox, according to news accounts of the day.
Bottger later opened another restaurant on the southern end of San Pablo in El Cerrito and Mammy’s closed.
With demand for housing at a peak during World War II, contractor Elmer Freethy purchased what was then El Cerrito Lumber at 1206 San Pablo Ave. (now 10812 San Pablo Ave.) from John Carrick to secure a supply of building materials. At some undetermined point, he also purchased the abandoned Mammy’s Place building and had it moved and attached to El Cerrito Lumber. There was a sentimental attachment. Freethy, in a 1990 interview about the “chicken dinner” building, referred to it as “the chicken shack,” and said he had purchased and moved the building because he used to take his future wife dancing there.
Elmer and Marjorie Freethy were married in 1930 and he started his contracting business the next year, according to an El Cerrito Wall of Fame profile in the city newsletter. One of his early big contracts was construction of El Cerrito High School from 1939-41.
The old chicken dinner building was torn down when El Cerrito Mill & Lumber underwent a major remodel by Elmer’s son, Jack Freethy, in 1996 as noted in this earlier post. The business, which had grown over time to include major portions of several blocks, closed in 2000 and the remodeled original El Cerrito Lumber building, redesigned in Victorian style, was moved across San Pablo and is now the Vitale Building.
Mammy’s Place is long gone and even though original owner Bottger was of European extraction, those free menus once given out to travelers are now rare and prized pieces of black Americana. A menu listed on eBay about in 2011 sold for more than $120.
Elmer Freethy died in 1998. Marjorie Freethy, a native of Point Richmond, died in 2013 at age 105.

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elmer freethy el cerrito lumber
Elmer Freethy at El Cerrito Lumber.

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Wayback Wednesday: Miss America visits El Cerrito in 1974

miss america 1974

Rebecca Ann King, the reigning Miss America, signs autographs at the Value Giant in the Moeser Lane Center in El Cerrito in 1974. King earned a law degree with her scholarship money from the pageant. Our thanks to the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce for these photos from its archives.

moeser lane center
The still-new Moeser Lane Center in the 1970s, when it was home to Safeway, Value Giant and the Jerry Lewis Theatre, a short-lived movie house visible at the right.

El Cerrito had its own national pageant winner when Maria Remenyi was named Miss USA in 1966.

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El Cerrito encourages community to attend update, discussion on possible hate crime

El Cerrito issued the following announcement today on a presentation and discussion to be held Wednesday regarding the Feb. 24 incident being investigated as a hate crime:
CITY LEADERS RESPOND TO ALLEGED HATE CRIME IN EL CERRITO

El Cerrito, CA: El Cerrito Mayor Greg Lyman is inviting community members to attend the City’s Human Relations Commission meeting on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 in response to an arson incident that the El Cerrito Police Department are investigating as a race-based hate crime.

At the Human Relations Commission meeting, community members can hear a presentation by the Police Department about the investigation and the City’s ongoing response to this incident, as well as participate in a discussion about demonstrating community solidarity against intolerance.

Mayor Lyman said, “I was disturbed to learn a family in our community were victims of an alleged race-based hate crime last week. This unfortunate incident is not in character with the El Cerrito community and provides an opportunity to highlight our community’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.”

“The El Cerrito Police Department is actively investigating this regrettable incident and has requested assistance from the community,” Lyman continued.

The alleged incident occurred early in morning on Wednesday, February 24, 2016 and the Police Department has asked any El Cerrito residents in the area of Arlington Boulevard with video surveillance systems to review their video for any vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians active between the hours of 1:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. Anyone with possible information about the case is asked to contact the El Cerrito Police Department at 510-215-4400 or investigations@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us.

Human Relations Commission Meeting Details:
Wednesday, March 2, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.
Council Chambers, City Hall, 10890 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito CA 94530
Agenda link: http://www.el-cerrito.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2558

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Richmond Black History Month presentation Tuesday will revisit forgotten men of war era tragedy

richond blaze 01 10 1944

The Richmond City Council meeting on Tuesday will mark Black History Month with what promises to be a poignant presentation by National Park Sevice ranger Betty Reid Soskin on eight men who worked at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond and died in a fire in a war worker housing dormitory in January of 1944.
While it made headlines at the time, the fire and its victims had been forgotten in the ensuing decades until Soskin was studying a photograph of the time that set off an investigation to uncover a neglected part of the city’s history.
According to a news release:

The genesis of this effort began in 2010 when Rosie The Riveter’s oldest and most famous staff member — National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin — was looking over a familiar picture of funeral services in the “Negro” section of the then-segregated National Cemetery in San Bruno of what park officials had long thought were the caskets of eight of the more than 200 African-American sailors who died in the munitions ship explosion at Port Chicago in 1944.”
Although she had seen the photograph many times before, she said that she had “never noticed it before [and the] impact was almost painful. Though this was a solemn military burial rite … the caskets were not flag draped.”
Soskin set out to discover why those eight black Navy sailors might have been so dishonored. Months of historical detective work by Park staff and associates turned up the discovery that there had been no dishonor at all, because the remains in the casket were not Navy sailors at all.
Instead, they were the remains of eight civilian African American shipyard workers, one of them only 17 years old, who died in a dormitory fire at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond six months before the Port Chicago tragedy.
The site where the Kaiser dormitory burned is now a collection of warehouses at South 11th Street and Potrero in Richmond, less than a mile from the Rosie The Riveter Visitors Center. No marker of what Soskin calls “the awful event” currently marks that spot. Rosie The Riveter Park officials are hoping that their proposal for a memorial to the eight Kaiser dormitory deaths on that site will start the process of both recognizing and honoring the American civilians who gave their lives supporting the war effort in this country.

The presentation is at the top of the agenda for the meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in the council chamber at 440 Civic Center Plaza. The meeting will also be televised on city channel KCRT.

Below are the item on the City Council agenda on Tuesday and Oakland Tribune coverage of the fire.

PRESENTATION FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH REGARDING THE DORMITORY O FIRE IN RICHMOND, WHICH CLAIMED THE LIVES OF EIGHT AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOME FRONT WORKERS IN RICHMOND DURING WORLD WAR II.

    STATEMENT OF THE ISSUE: Black History Month occurs each February as an annual observance for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. This presentation honors the lives of eight African-Americans who were killed in a deadly fire in Richmond during the World War II. RECOMMENDED ACTION: RECEIVE a presentation for Black History Month regarding the Dormitory O Fire in Richmond, which claimed the lives of eight African-American Home Front workers in Richmond during World War II. FINANCIAL IMPACT: There are no financial impacts related to this item. DISCUSSION: National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin recently uncovered the forgotten story of eight African-American men who worked in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards and were killed in a devastating dormitory fire. The location of the fire is less than a mile from Dr. Martin Luther King Park on Harbour Way South and Virginia Avenue. Remembering this tragedy is important to Richmond’s history, because it honors the lives of black men and others who answered our nation’s call to service by working on the Home Front.


Oakland Tribune, Jan. 10, 1944:

8 Die, 20 Hurt in Richmond Fire
Firemen Aid in Rescue of 30 as Shipyard
Dormitory Is Razed; Watchman’s
Shots Rouse Sleepers, Coll Fire Engines

RICHMOND, Jan. 10—At least eight Negro shipyard workers were burned to death early today and score of others were injured when fire swept through Dormitory O, a war housing building at South Eleventh Street and Potrero Avenue.
At least 30 others were saved from death or injury by an alert patrolman who fired shots in the air to awaken them when he discovered “lames pouring from the structure at 2:10 a.m.
The eight who lost their lives were burned beyond recognition, and housing authorities said they probably could not be identified until all of the men mown to have been in the building are accounted for. It is feared there may be more bodies in the smoking ruins.
EIGHT BODIES FOUND
Five bodies were found when the blaze was brought under control and three more were discovered in the embers later.
The two-story frame structure burned mrncd to the ground in less than two hours. Fire Chief William Cooper said there never was chance to save it.
His men were handicapped in trying to fight the blaze, he reported, because two hydrants in the immediate vicinity were too rusty to be used and because water pressure in the area was very low. The hydrants, the chief pointed out, are the responsibility of the Federal Projects Housing Corporation, which erected the dormitories with Maritime Commission funds.
CRITICAL CONDITION
One of the injured workers, Henry Manney, 17, is in a critical condition it the Permanente Foundation Hospital in Oakland. He is burned badly on the arms and legs and may not live.
One fireman, J. E. Nelson, stepped on a nail and cut his foot. He was given emergency treatment and an anti-tetanus shot and sent back to duty.
LEAP FROM WINDOWNS
Almost immediately, sleepy residents of the dormitory were jumping from windows or fighting their way through the fire at the doors. Most of them were clad only in underwear or night clothes and were barefoot.
The seven who died either didn’t awaken when the shots were fired, or were unable to get out of their rooms.
The shots also aroused firemen at a city fire station a block away.
They saw the flames shooting up from the building and rang in an alarm for more apparatus.
Three engine companies responded from their station and another came from the main fire station at Fifth Street and Macdonald Avenue. The entire building was blazing by the time they arrived.

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Richmond: Plan for airport at Point Isabel never got off the ground 50 years ago


Before the Point Isabel proposal, an airport was proposed off of Berkeley in 1945. (San Francisco Public Library History Center)

point isabel airport 10 1966a

If a plan first raised in 1966 had flown with regulators, there might have been an airport for small aircraft along the Bay in Richmond where dogs now frolic, strollers and bicyclists take in Bay views and UC Berkeley is planning its global campus.
The proposal for the Point Isabel airport between Point Isabel and Brooks Island surfaced in the summer of 1966 and was largely embraced by business leaders in Richmond as beneficial to local commerce and the region as a whole. Had the proposal been made 10 years earlier, it might have flown. But plans to fill 225 acres of mudflats now had to go before the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the regulatory panel established in 1965 as a result of the activism of the the Save San Francisco Bay Association (later Save the Bay).
The airport proposal was exactly the type of project Save the Bay tried to halt, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by the idea’s promoters.
The City Councils in Albany, Berkeley and El Cerrito all went on record in opposition, with Kay Kerr, one of the three founders of Save the Bay and the wife of UC Berkeley President Clark Kerr, speaking against the project before the El Cerrito council.

point isabel airport 10 1966

The plan did get as far as being submitted to the BCDC for consideration, but discussion was postponed a few times and the notion ultimately ran out of steam.

On Nov. 16 the Oakland Tribune reported that Berkeley had officially stated its opposition to the project:

OPPOSE AIRPORT
The council also went on record as opposing the proposed Richmond Airport in the bay between Point Isabel and Brooks Island. The project, which is to come before the Bay Conservation and Development Commission on Friday, would require
filling 225 acres in two stages.
The council opposed the project because it would create a noise problem and commit a major portion of the Eastbay shoreline before a regional plan could be drawn up. Councilmen also noted that regional plans call for inland rather than bay airports.

On Nov. 19 the Tribune reported that “BCDC took no action at this time on a request by the city of Richmond for an ‘advisory opinion’ on a proposed airport construction at Point Isabel which would involve filling 225 acres of tidelands. The project would serve small planes.”

A man readies to throw a ball for his dog to fetch while enjoying the sunset at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011.  (Dean Coppola/Staff)

A man readies to throw a ball for his dog to fetch while enjoying the sunset at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011. (Dean Coppola/Staff)

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Throwback Thursday: Bowling was still a big West County attraction in 1977

lucky lanes 1977023

We’ve written here before about the bowling alleys of West County, in this post and this one. Not to mention this one and this one.

This time out we’re looking back almost 40 years to bowling alley ads and advertorial copy that appeared in the Richmond Independent “Progress Edition” of 1977. Bowling was still quite popular, and Lucky Lanes in San Pablo, Golden Gate Lanes in El Cerrito and Albany Bowl were represented in the edition. (Uptown Bowl in Richmond did not advertise in the edition.) Only Albany Bowl and Pinole Valley Lanes are still operating in the area today. Can anyone tell us what the “Moon Walk” was at Lucky Lanes?

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albany bowl 1977028